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Satellite monitors water flows

Wednesday, 17th February, 2021

The Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) was able to follow an environmental flow as it travelled across 306,400 square kilometres of the Murray Darling Basin for the first time though their new satellite capabilities. PICTURE: NRAR The Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) was able to follow an environmental flow as it travelled across 306,400 square kilometres of the Murray Darling Basin for the first time though their new satellite capabilities. PICTURE: NRAR

By Myles Burt

Partnering with the MDBA and Geoscience Australia, NRAR conducted the largest and most systematic monitoring effort in its history. 

Using the satellite data from European Space Agency (Sentinel), the United States Geological Survey (Landsat) and commercial service provide Planet. 

The Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) in partnership with the Murray Darling Basin Authority and Geoscience Australia were able to monitor an environmental flow as it travelled across 306,400 square kilometres and past more than 3,500 on-farm storages. NRAR’s Chief Regulatory officer Grant Barnes said the partnership last year finally gave NRAR eyes in the sky.

“This was the biggest monitoring effort in our history,” Mr Barnes said.

“We increased our capacity to monitor on-farm storage units by almost 500 percent, from 600 to 3,500 storage units.”

Mr Barnes said NRAR are able to access their satellite resources and materials around the clock, seven days a week. 

Mr Barnes said NRAR is able to detect potential water law breaches through their database of satellite images showing onsite farm storages.

NRAR is able to determine the volume of water and whether water is being stored in an onsite farm storage. 

If NRAR detect a change in images suggesting water has been extracted to an onsite storage during a flow embargo, then they are able to flag it and further investigate. 

Mr Barnes strongly believes that the knowledge of NRAR’s satellite capabilities alone will help deter illegal pumping.

“With this technology NRAR can be anywhere at any time, this technology enables us to monitor the flow of water, the use of water and the access of water,” Mr Barnes said.

“I think it’s well understood that NRAR has this capability, landholders expect us to enforce the law to ensure that water is being used fairly and for its purpose.

“For those who don’t, they can also understand that we have a role to enforce the law.”

Mr Barnes said their satellite monitoring in partnership with MDBA and GA uncovered 1,536 alleged breached of NSW water laws with eight prosecutions commencing in 2020. 

Mr Barnes said he’s encouraged by those numbers as it also shows that a vast majority of water users are doing the right thing.

“It’s only the minority who are breaking the law and they can be confident in us using this technology, we will find them and we’ll progress the matter,” Mr Barnes said.

Allowing NRAR to cover vest areas of territory, their satellite technology allows them to very deliberately send staff to locations where they expect water laws have been breached. 

Rather than historically where NRAR would send a group of staff into a valley to do routine monitoring.

“So you can go from a vast territory right down to quite small localised areas in a short space of time using the satellites,” Mr Barnes said.

Mr Barnes said the investigation process into alleged water theft can be lengthy due to the complex myriad of rules, conditions and exemptions that differ from each irrigator and each state within the Murray Darling Basin. 

Mr Barnes said that complexity can even make it difficult for water users to understand their obligations, making it hard for water users to comply.

In turn, Mr Barnes said from NRAR’s perspective this point can also make it difficult for them to monitor and certainly so when investigating.

“Hence why we take our time to do a thorough job to make sure that when we are making allegations that the law has been breached, we do that with a strong understanding that that is likely to be the case,” Mr Barnes said.

In terms of privacy concerns over the use of satellite technology, Mr Barnes said that water is a publicly owned resource and that while those who hold entitlements have a right to use it, it comes with obligations. 

Mr Barnes said they only use the technology to detect lawful water use and distinguish that from unlawful use. 

Mr Barnes said the use of the technology is bound by their privacy obligations.

“We have strict protocols in place to ensure that the privacy of water users are protected and that when we embark on a prosecution, we do so without recourse to the public,” Mr Barnes said.

“We leave these matters to the courts.”

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